His Royal Highness
They looked at each other steadily, the distinguished visitor and the prisoner who polished a brass railing. Beside them an official was droning a particularly monotonous and dreary account of the institution, his eyes half-closed with the mental exertion of recollection, his thoughts turned inward and absorbed. There were several gentlemen and officers of the building in the bare room, chatting with one another in varying degrees of boredom and interest, and completely ignoring the quiet prisoner who had been John Allard. Yet he was perhaps the only one present, with the exception of the man facing him, who escaped the commonplace.
"You have something to say?" questioned the grave, lustrous dark eyes of the visitor; eyes southern in their long-lashed softness, northern in their directness.
And Allard's gray eyes returned assent with an utter calm which overlay the surface of tragedy.
"On the east bank of the Hudson, six miles above Tarrytown," went on the droning voice of the official, then broke as the visitor's cool, slightly imperious tones fell across the monologue:
"Ah, and is it permitted to speak with your inmates, if one has the fancy?"
The official stared, but smiled vaguely.
"Certainly, sir; if you
wish," he replied.
Again the eloquent glances of the other two crossed.
"You have much of this work?" queried the visitor, the words scarcely heeded either by speaker or listener in the deeper search for a means of communication.
Allard answered in French, the fluent, barely-accented French of a traveled American:
"That man in gray who accompanies you, monsieur, the man near the window, is not to be trusted. He was released from this place last year, after serving a term for his share in some Paterson anarchistic outrages. He is dangerous, and he watches you constantly."
The visitor was trained to self-control; he did not commit the mistake of looking toward the man in question. But he could not quite check the flash of blended emotions which crossed his own expression.
"Thank you," he said. And after an instant, "I thought I recognized you when I saw you on entering; now you have spoken, I am certain. Yet--"
Allard flushed from throat to temples, the color dying out again to leave even his lips white. But his reply was steadily given.
"There is no one here whom you know, monsieur, or who knows you. Even a prison has its courtesies. Turn your head away, and go past," he said.
"Would you have done so, finding a friend in such a strait?"
"I have no friends."
"Then why did you warn me against Dancla, my anarchistic secretary yonder?"
The question was unexpected, and left Allard momentarily disconcerted.
"Confess we knew each other very well five years ago," the visitor added gently, and paused to consider.
A few paces off the official stood stupidly enjoying the respite from exertion; placidly indifferent to an incomprehensible conversation inspired by a whim of the guest. The other three or four men were admiring the view from a window facing the river, and listening to their cicerone.
"I wish you would go away, monsieur," Allard said only, when he had recovered perfect command of himself.
"Be patient with me yet a moment. We were both avowedly masquerading during those weeks of boyish frolic at Palermo; do you know who I am?"
"No more than I knew then: that you were a European, and evidently of position."
"You have more liberty than some of those here, I think."
"Yes; I am what they call a trusty;" the straight line between the fine brows deepened markedly.
"I beg your pardon; I do not ask from curiosity. My yacht is anchored before this place--if I return through here in an hour, on my way to it, can you be here still?"
"I believe so, but I would prefer not. I can aid you no further; and--"
For an instant the curtain was withdrawn from the prisoner's clear eyes.
"You wake what is better asleep. It is not pleasant for me to meet you, monsieur."
The visitor caught his breath. It came to him with a shock of realization that many days and nights might pass before he could forget that straight glance of quivering pain and humiliation, of proudly endured hopelessness.
"Yet I ask it," he insisted.
"Very well. If I am not here it will be because it was not possible."
The visitor turned away with well-assumed carelessness.
"I fancied your prisoner there was a fellow-countryman," he remarked to the official, in passing on. "But he appears to be French."
"Yes, sir. He said he came from the South, at his trial."
The man had necessarily kept beside the visitor to reply, and they walked down the room so together.
"What is he here for?" came the idle inquiry.
"Counterfeiting, sir. Right over on that mountain across the river, they captured him and killed one of his comrades. The rest got away in time, and they never were found because this man would tell nothing, even to save himself. He might have turned state's evidence and got off with a light sentence, for he was young and not known to the police. But he wouldn't and he got the whole thing. Leroy, his name is. The officers who captured him believe he never meant to be taken alive; for they found him unconscious, with a little pistol in his hand, and they guessed that he fainted before he could use it. He had to spend weeks in a hospital before he could be tried, getting over a broken ankle and some other worse injuries. But he and his fellows had done clever work, no one knows how much. This Leroy might have been from across the water, as you say, sir; no one knows him here."
"How long has he been here?"
"Two years, sir."
"And his sentence?"
The visitor shuddered involuntarily. Pleased by his interest, the official brightened to offer further diversion:
"If you'll come to the inner building, sir, I can show you some more. We've some in for life--"
"Thank you," the visitor refused bruskly, and moved aside to rejoin his companions.
The little group fell silent and expectant at the approach of the one whose escort they were. It was rather a brilliant group against the somber prison background. Dancla, "the man in gray" of Allard's warning, was the only member not in uniform, with the exception of the distinguished visitor himself.
"I am going into the town," their chief announced, pausing before them, "with Dancla. You may return to the yacht. Vasili, send the launch for me in an hour. Ah, and leave on that bench by the door my rain coat; I fancy it will be storming before we return. You understand?"
"Perfectly, your Royal Highness," responded Vasili, a trim, blond young aide-de-camp with a most ingenuous smile. He spoke in French, as did all the party.
"I alone have the honor of accompanying your Royal Highness?" Dancla asked, not without a shade of uneasiness.
The velvet black eyes of his chief passed over him deliberately.
"You alone; come."
They went out, attended by the prison officials, past the prisoner still at work. Laughing and chatting, the rest of the party walked down the room to the door nearest the river. The place left seemed darker for their going, the silence more profound after their gay voices.
"We knew each other very well five years ago--"
When the patient has apparently reached the climax of suffering, when the very excess of pain brings a relief of numbness, Fate the Inquisitor occasionally finds amusement in devising a fresh form of putting the question. Upon Allard was forced the San Benito of renewed recollection.
Nearly five years before, John Allard, in all his gay insouciance of twenty-one years, had spent an hour on the quay at Palermo to enjoy the limpid Sicilian night. Alone at first, he was presently joined by a young officer with whom he had crossed from Italy a few days before and formed a slight shipboard acquaintance. Knowing nothing of each other, there had nevertheless sprung into life between them that curious sympathy and friendliness which can be born of exchanged glances, meeting smiles; that sudden inexplicable liking which can make two passing strangers turn to gaze wistfully after each other and vaguely resent the trick of chance that has set their feet in opposite paths. It is one of the common phenomena of existence, but it was new to Allard, and perhaps new to his companion as well.
They sat side by side while evening melted into night, starlight into late moonrise; and they chatted of everything tangible and intangible suggested by the place and the time. But they did not touch the personal note until the cathedral chimes were pealing midnight.
"I must go back," commented the European wearily. "I have had my last day."
"Your last day!" Allard echoed, startled.
"Of freedom, yes. I was promised a month's vacation; a month to spend as I chose, but I have good reason to know the promise has been revoked. Oh, not for any cause,--just my uncle's whim. He is fond of playing with me so."
"Do you always do what he says?" queried the young America incredulously.
"I have that habit; it is safer, and more virtuous. Still, virtue palls when its reward is invisible. When I go back to the hotel, Petro will hand me a telegram demanding my return to the Empire."
"Then I would not go back to the hotel," was the blithe suggestion. "Run before you are told to stay. Come share my bachelor hut and let Rome vociferate for a while."
"You are not in earnest," said the other, turning to look at him with an odd, eager surprise.
Allard had not been, but he adopted his own idea with the light-hearted impulsiveness of his bel age
"Why not? My people--my brother and aunt and cousin--have gone for a glimpse of Germany; and I have stayed here to cram for my last year of college. I have a delicious miniature villa five miles out of town, which I have taken until their return, and which is a thousand times too big for me alone. Come stay out your vacation with me. If your uncle promised you a month, he can not complain if you take it. It is not your fault if you do not receive his old telegram."
"No. I am not supposed to know it is coming."
"Well, then, why not come? Send a note to your servant at the hotel, and tell him you are visiting a friend. He will have to telegraph your uncle that you are not to be found."
The European stood up and looked out across the shining water.
"I am nearly twenty-seven years old," he stated, "and I have never in my life had one week of my own. If you are serious, I will do this."
"Of course I am serious. We will have the time of both our lives. Come," the spirit of adventure in his veins, "you can write your note in that trattoria over there, and pay a boy to take it. We shall then make a straight dash for Villa Giocosa."
"You do not know me, and I can not tell you my name without spoiling all. If I tell you, we can not ignore it, try as we may."
Allard paused, then laughed out in sheer delight at the situation.
"I forgot all about names; I believe you do not know mine, for that matter. But come incognito, if you choose. I will even play host incognito, if that will arrange matters. Monsieur, my Christian name is John."
Youth, and the South, and the romance-freighted Sicilian night!
"You are very good," said the other simply. "I am called Feodor."
They went home to Villa Giocosa.
The three weeks which followed were a charming and graceful incident to Allard, an interlude in his happy, pleasantly-filled life. What they were to his companion, the American did not realize until long afterward. The two young men read or lounged together in the mossy garden, boated on the placid sea, talked and smoked through the tranquil evenings in the perfection of comradeship. But they kept the playful incognito, calling each other Don John and Don Feodor in the pretty Italian custom of the island where they met. Yet there was a difference, for the frank and communicative Allard soon laid all his past and present open to view, while the other never spoke of himself.
"How much you know!" exclaimed Allard, one day when Don Feodor came to the aid of the college man and passed from complicated subject to subject with the light surety of a master of each.
"I ought to know something; I have been trained in a school that concedes no rest," was the composed reply.
The idyl ended abruptly. One sun-gilded, flower-scented noon, a messenger was ushered into the villa garden. In silence Don Feodor accepted and read the letter brought, in silence wrote and gave to the bearer his answer. And then he turned to his dismayed host.
"They have found me," he said quietly. "Of course you can not realize how I shall remember this time; you are too happy."
That was all. But Allard had remembered also; remembered the breathless, hot hush of noon, the heavy perfume of orange- and lemon-blossoms, as they shook hands in the old garden, and the sense of boyish desolation with which the farewell had left him.
"We knew each other very well, five years ago--"
The prisoner bent his head over his work, setting his white teeth in his lip until his mouth was bitter with the taste of his own blood.
The short spring day drew toward its close. The threatened storm marshaled its gray columns down the river, a sighing rain whispered around the building of sorrows. Very early, shore and water alike blended into vague, indeterminate dusk.
Rather less than the hour fixed had elapsed when the distinguished visitor, who had once worn the name of Don Feodor instead of that journalistic title, reëntered the upper end of the hall. He came accompanied only by the same stolid official as before; Dancla had disappeared.
Opposite the prisoner he paused to light a cigarette, then hesitated, looking from him to the little gold case in his own hand.
"I am going out again with this officer," he said in French, his casual tone excellently feigned. "Go to that river door, put on the coat lying upon the bench and the cap you will find in a pocket, then walk slowly to the barred gate and wait for me. When I come, salute me and follow."
Allard stiffened to rigidity, his eyes seeking the other's.
"I am guilty of what they accuse; do you still wish this?" he demanded.
There was something more than admiration in the visitor's smile.
"Did you question me in Palermo, or did you accept caste as enough? Yes, I wish it." He turned to the official and offered him the gold case. "I wanted to give the poor devil a cigarette," he explained. "But he says it is not allowed. Ah, I have forgotten to sign your register; will you come back?"
"Yes, sir," readily consented the man, curiously inspecting the diminutive, gold-tipped, perfumed cigarette lying in his ample palm. The nicotine bon-bon touched his massive sense of the ludicrous; he was still contemplating it as he led the way back.
When the two vanished, Allard went swiftly down the long room, casting around him a glance of feverish scrutiny. He reached the door as a great gong announced the time when he should have returned from his work. Snatching up the coat, he slipped into it, pulled out the yachting cap with its gilt insignia, and finding a pair of gloves, drew them over his stained hands. So far well!
The most dangerous part, the journey across the broad, open wharf under the gaze of the armed guards in the towers, at least gave him the tonic of the sweet, wet air.
"I need John Allard's unshaken nerves," he told himself grimly. "If I reach there, perhaps I can believe he still exists."
The cloudy twilight, just light enough to show his conventional outline, just dark enough to veil discrepancies, aided him. He walked quite slowly and naturally, carefully avoiding puddles, stopping once to turn up his collar against the drizzling rain. Several times he looked back for his companion, and strolled on again.
A dozen eyes watched the self-possessed figure as he leaned nonchalantly upon the barred gate, and passed from him to the more interesting spectacle of the small white launch and immaculate crew waiting outside.
There was little time, and the visitor, now with three attendant officials, moved slowly across the space.
"God," prayed Allard dumbly, leaning against the gate in anguished waiting. "I think I have paid; but if not, let them shoot--to kill."
The group came nearer, halted. Allard drew himself stiffly erect and raised his hand in salute as the tallest man came opposite, then obeyed a slight movement of direction and stepped behind him. A grating of locks, a brief exchange of compliments, and for the first time in two years the prisoner stood without the barriers. Free, if only for that instant, free, and in reach of the lapping river.
The sailors waited at rigid salute, the visitor stepped into the swaying launch, and as Allard followed the gate closed--behind him. The tiny engine puffed, caught its beat, and the boat darted toward the dim white shape out in the stream.
Lights were flashing up here and there in the buildings, shining through the barred windows. To see the uncheckered sky again!
At the throb of their motor the yacht gleamed unexpectedly into an outline of myriad-pointed fire. Men ran across the decks, a miniature staircase fell in readiness.
"Follow me closely," directed the cool voice, when the launch stopped.
The wet, shining deck, the mutely respectful figures waiting to receive them, all blurred into insignificance for Allard. As his foot touched the yacht, pandemonium broke loose in the prison. Out over shouts and gong crashed the deafening roar of the huge whistle, rousing the country-side for miles around.
"It means?" questioned the master of the situation.
"They know I am missing--and they will think to search the yacht first."
"They will not search it without my consent, but I shall grant it. Come."
A hand closed on Allard's arm; he was guided swiftly down a tinted and gilded companionway, across several rooms no less brilliant, and finally halted in a jewel box state-room.
"The clothes lie ready; get into them as soon as possible and come back to me. Lose no time, and toss the things you wear into that chest," came the directions. "I dare send no one to aid you."
"I understand," Allard answered, equally collected. In those Palermo days, it had been Don John who had lent Don Feodor a dinner dress; there would be little difficulty in the substitution now.
The other man went out to the salon. Touching a bell on the table, he gave his outer garments to the attendant who appeared.
"I shall not dress for dinner," he stated. "Let it be served here, now."
"Your Royal Highness is obeyed."
"And my companion is a gentleman who takes Dancla's place; let the suite be arranged for him."
"Yes, your Royal Highness."
His Royal Highness sat down in an arm-chair, his dark eyes more drowsily lustrous than usual as he listened to the din on shore. His old-world beauty of feature was characterized very strongly by the locked tranquillity of expression seen in those who live constantly under the observation of others; he wore a mask of repose not readily lifted.
It was not long before Allard came out, and closing the door behind him, stood for a moment regarding his host with an expression that blended all thoughts in its passionate intensity. And prepared as he was for the change, remembering as he did the Don John of Palermo, the other yet returned the gaze with startled admiration and wonder. This gentleman, who proclaimed his class in bearing, glance, in the very poise of his head with its short, waving chestnut hair of patrician fineness,--how had he been confounded for one hour with the underworld? Who had found the stamp of criminality in the strong, fine, sorrowful face?
"Monsieur," said Allard, taking a step forward.
Recalled, the host rose at once.
"Pardon a thousand times; I must remember you are the guest now and that this is not Villa Giocosa. But I can not play incognito any more. I have told my people that you come to take the place of my late secretary, Dancla--the man of whom you warned me--so you comprehend that it would never do for us not to know each other. I am Feodor Stanief."
Too aloof from recent European news, too long separated in thought from his former careless knowledge of such things, the name awoke in Allard only a vague sense of familiarity.
"If you have so much patience, or care for the old days, I will tell you my story whenever you choose, monsieur," he answered frankly and with dignity. "Until then, may I still give you the half-truth of Villa Giocosa and bear the name of John?"
The soft tinkle of china interrupted them. Stanief had only time to reply with his unexpectedly brilliant smile, before the servant entered the salon.
"I shall have pleasure in claiming the confidence, Monsieur John," he returned, "and may have one to give, if you concede what I hope. Marzio, what is that uproar outside?" turning to the servant.
"Your Royal Highness, it is not known. The people on shore are much disturbed."
"Apparently. If we were home, Monsieur John, I should call it a riot; but here--" he shrugged his shoulders and moved toward the table.
Allard followed, noting for the first time the title given the other. Interpreting his glance, Stanief nodded intelligence as the servant withdrew for an instant.
"Yes; a mere formality, but one it is not safe to ignore in our delicate position. To speak otherwise might draw attention."
Allard looked across the miniature dining table, of which the shaded candles and slim vase of flowers, the translucent crystal and frosty silver, all seemed to typify and insist upon the life which so strangely claimed him; and gazing at the author of this, the gray eyes grew splendidly luminous with something for which gratitude was too pale and colorless a term. All the hoarded emotion of the last two years, all the despair and desolation, added their strength to his eloquent regard. Receiving it, Stanief's own eyes grew warm and almost femininely sweet. No speech could have told so much. When the servant reëntered and the lashes of both men fell, a chain unbreakable had been forged, the clearness of wordless understanding was between them.
Neither spoke during the first course. The rapid beat of a small engine finally disturbed the silence, telling of a launch approaching from shore.
"Try your Sauterne," advised Stanief quietly.
Allard obeyed. The food nauseated him, the heavy pulse of his own heart seemed tangled with the nearing throb of the boat; the suspense was physical pain. The wine helped, sending its vivifying warmth along his numbed nerves.
"You know," the tranquil voice added, "this ship is foreign ground. There are a few formalities attached. We should have a little time, even--"
Allard lifted his head with a quick breath.
"Once, in such an hour, I asked one whom I believed a friend to leave me a revolver," he said. "Not being of the class, he refused. If there should be--a little time, I will make that request of you, your Royal Highness."
"And I am of the class. But there are many things before that."
Voices on deck, hurrying feet, stilled the sentence.
"Thank you," Allard answered, and waited.
Marzio again, deftly removing plates, changing glasses. Then another entrance,--the blond Vasili who had accompanied Stanief that day.
"Well?" queried his chief.
"Your Royal Highness, Captain Delsar respectfully begs an interview."
"Your Royal Highness, a boat from shore has arrived and the officers request permission to search the yacht for an escaped prisoner."
"Is that the reason for the din they are creating?"
"Yes, your Royal Highness."
Stanief selected a cigarette and pushed the tray toward Allard.
"Of course they have no right to do so," he replied indifferently, "but I have no objection. Let them search, by all means. Tell Captain Delsar to aid them all he can, although, unless he swam, there was no way for a man to reach the yacht except on the launch which brought Monsieur John and me. Monsieur John, let me introduce Lieutenant Paul Vasili."
Allard turned to acknowledge the other's friendly salute. Stanief faced the door, which consequently was behind his companion.
"Give the message, Vasili, and say the yacht is open to them; even these rooms, if they wish. And tell the captain that we sail in an hour. That is all."
Silence again. Allard mechanically maintained the pretense of eating with each course while in reality he knew nothing but the faint sounds of the search and the intermittent roar of the whistle.
With the coffee came Vasili once more. Stanief nodded permission for the message.
"Your Royal Highness, the officers from the prison have finished. As a matter of form, they would accept your Royal Highness' offered consent and glance in here, in order to report every part of the yacht examined."
"Very good; admit them. Marzio, why have you this electric light over the table? Turn it out; the candelabra and the side lights are ample."
Both orders were promptly obeyed. Vasili disappeared and the flaring light went out, leaving the room softly glowing with rosy color. Stanief looked into the set face opposite with the first trace of annoyance on his own.
"I forgot the coat, left on the bench all the afternoon. If any one saw it--"
Allard made a movement, then the door behind him opened.
"Come in, officer," Stanief invited pleasantly. "You are satisfied with a mere survey, or do you wish to carry it farther? I think either Mr. John or I have been in this room, however, since we came aboard at half-past five."
"Come in, Officer," Stanief invited pleasantly.
"Yes, sir," answered an embarrassed voice, a voice which for months had represented autocracy for Allard. "We just want to report a complete search, sir. I'm sorry to trouble."
Stanief lighted a cigar, letting the man slowly take in the scene. The gorgeous, velvet-draped salon, the last course of the dinner, the serene "distinguished visitor,"--there was no clue here. And certainly there was nothing to suggest a desperate convict in the gentleman in evening dress whose back was to the door, and who stirred his café noir so indifferently.
"Why did you fancy he came to the yacht?" Stanief inquired.
"Oh, excuse me, sir; it was only one chance. We thought he might have got to the river and swam for here. You see, it would be pretty hard to get out the other way in his clothes."
Allard raised his head impulsively.
"Why," he began, then remembered the punctilious Vasili and checked himself. "I beg pardon, your Royal Highness."
A gleam of amusement flickered across Stanief's black eyes at the quickly-learned etiquette.
, my dear John," he granted, waiving the point.
"It occurred to me that your Royal Highness had ordered a rain coat to be left on the bench by the rear door, and when we returned it was not there. Could it be possible--"
"That it was stolen?" caught up Stanief, grasping the audacity of the idea. "Undoubtedly so. I fancied my order neglected and intended rebuking the one responsible. Officer, behold your clue: a hatless man in an English rain coat."
The phrase captivated the man's dull imagination.
"A hatless man in an English rain coat," he echoed, fascinated. "Yes, sir, thank you, sir. We will telegraph all around. If I may go, sir--"
"You are quite certain he is not aboard? I do not wish to carry any dangerous stowaways, and we sail at once."
"Quite sure, sir. I must waste no more time."
"Good night, then. I imagine you will have no more trouble with that prisoner."
"Oh, no, sir," not understanding the double meaning. "Not after this. A hatless man in an English rain coat! Good night, sir."
"Marzio," said Stanief, when the door closed, "you may bring some cognac, and leave us. No one enters."
Voices on deck, hurrying feet, and presently the retreating throb of a little engine.
"Drink your cognac, Monsieur John."
"Bah, your nerves are superb, but they pay beneath your stillness. Drink; I warn you that I have the habit of domination."